Upon tasting my first persimmon, I had a vision for preserving this sweet, creamy fruit. I imagined a thick, apricot colored jam, filled with exotic spices and smeared on warm sourdough bread. It took two years to attempt this vision, a vision that was met with a reality check. Instead of a sweet, creamy jam, what I got was a grainy, tannic, mouth-drying- pulp. I was perplexed at how a fruit that was so sweet and delightful when fresh could transform into a gritty mess. Persimmons remain the most challenging wild food I’ve preserved and what follows are the successes and failures experienced in taming this wild food.
Back in December, as Rob wrote in “A December Hunt for Wild Edibles in the Pineywoods of Texas,” we happened upon our largest collection of persimmons to date, 25 pounds! The sweet gooey fruit was hanging from the trees, encapsulated in a papery thin skin that burst when the fruit hit the ground. We gently shook the trees and the persimmons rained down around us. Some exploded on impact, while others rolled to a stop or met their fate in the Neches River. We painstakingly collected the gooey fruit in the plastic bags we had handy, and carried out our bounty.
Once home, the real work began. The persimmons had to be cleaned of all the sticks, dirt, and leathery fruit stems swimming in the bags. This task was made all the more challenging by the state of the fruit. A majority of the persimmons had ruptured on the journey out, and our plastic bags were filled with a conglomeration of sweet pulp, stems, skins, and seeds.
I missed out on the first two rounds of persimmon cleaning but Madi, Ross and Rob seemed to have had a really great time with it! Their smiles and joy seemed endless as they separated the pulp and debris by hand. Here was learned the importance of having the proper tools! A sieve, mesh bag, and electric juicer were all employed, with limited success, to separate the pulp from the seeds and skins. After all of this, I broke down and purchased a food mill; a tool which streamlined the separation process to give us the thick, sweet, pulp we desired. We are eternally grateful to its inventor.
With the auburn pulp successfully attained and the hardest part seemingly over, I reasoned to put the pulp in a pot with water, sugar and spices and simmer until the alchemy was complete. Wow, was I ever wrong! While this method can be employed for nearly every fruit and berry that I can think of, the persimmon defies the norm. Water is no friend of the persimmon. The two come together like vinegar and milk, seriously. Water causes the persimmon puree to curdle, then become gritty and astringent. It is the astringency that made the taste test especially unpleasant. A small taste immediately drew all of the moisture from your mouth and left you with a dry film on your teeth and tongue. Ok, don’t add water, check! Back to the drawing board.
With the earlier batch in the compost, I decided to err on the side of caution and follow a recipe. I found one for Wild Persimmon and Ginger Jam, in Preserving Wild Foods by Matthew Weingarten and Raquel Pelzel. When they said, the jam is good “spooned on warm, fresh-baked scones,” I felt I was on the right track. In my heavy-bottomed pot I added persimmon puree, baking soda (to neutralize the tannin!), spices and sugar and stirred the concoction over low heat. The jam bubbled as I added the baking soda and spices. I continued to stir and was dismayed when my jam was not only astringent, but gritty. I added more baking soda and sugar in an attempt to save the jam, but the damage was done. I scraped the paste from the pot and attempted an experiment. I warmed plain persimmon puree over low heat to see what would happen. As the puree warmed, it transformed again into the dark, tannic persimmon paste I had been disappointed by. It appeared heat was an enemy of the persimmon as well.
We had collected 25 pounds of wild persimmons and I managed to ruin 22 of those pounds with water, heat, and unsuccessful recipe attempts. Feeling defeated and frustrated, I did the only thing I could think of with the 3 meager cups of persimmon puree I had left; I packed it into mason jars and threw that shit in the freezer! About a week later, someone shared with me a recipe for Nancy Regan’s Persimmon Cake; a recipe I have not been bold enough to attempt. It calls for the cake to be steamed rather than baked. She apparently knew something I didn’t. While that may be the theme of the persimmon debacle, I did learn that you have to work with the fruit, rather than against it. As humans, we sometimes try and take elements of nature and mold them into what we want. Often, we are successful, while other times nature stands up, much like the persimmon, and says “no! you cannot turn me into the jam of your dreams.”